Don’t dress for the ride—dress for the fall. I’ve been riding motorcycles for years, both for personal enjoyment and for my job as a product reviewer, and I’m picky about my gear. Lots of riding gear has passed through my door, joining me both in blasting down a highway on a sportbike and crawling off-road trails on a dirt bike. Here’s what I found worth keeping around.
Many of the products in this guide are not available at the usual retailers like Amazon and Target but instead from smaller online stores like RevZilla. You may have never heard of them, but stores like RevZilla are some of the preeminent places to purchase motorcycling gear. I’ve used RevZilla for years and have never run into any issues. When possible, we’ll try to find and link to more common retailers in case you’re still wary—or you just want to use your preferred storefront.
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This Vanson is the archetypical leather motorcycle jacket. It’s not a household name, but motorcyclists know it well. Real motorcycle jackets like the long-time classic Comet have longer sleeves and shorter bodies than most leather jackets; all to better fit you when you’re in riding position. Made in Boston, the Comet’s ultra-thick steerhide offers great abrasion resistance against pavement, plus pockets for elbow, shoulder, and back armor. Vansons are buy-it-for-life garments, and they marry sexy looks with significant crash protection.
I wouldn’t dream of wearing leather once the temperature climbs. Vented textile mesh jackets offer protection and abrasion resistance while also allowing enough airflow to keep you from passing out on hot days. Once I hit about 20 miles per hour, I get enough breeze to feel comfortable, even on sweltering summer days. Rarely have I worn the Air Frame D1 in chilly weather, but I have zipped in the removable windbreaker liner, and it made a noticeable difference in warmth. The D1 comes with hard elbow and shoulder armor that you can add on, but they’re bulky. I’d replace them with the Forcefield Isolator 2 featured below, or D3O inserts. There’s a pocket for back armor too, but none is included.
For summer rides, this made-in-Los-Angeles riding shirt is a great pick. There are pockets for elbow armor (not included), but none for shoulder or back armor. Still, it keeps you much cooler than any other jacket in hot weather. The 12-ounce raw cotton canvas is reinforced with Kevlar on the shoulders, elbows, and back, providing abrasion resistance without the warmth of leather. Beneath the snaps, a full-length zipper keeps the jacket from blowing open at speed, and large interior and exterior pockets hold everything I could possibly want to bring on a ride.
Leather and Kevlar only protect you from losing your skin to road rash. For impact protection, you need to add armor. Look for the CE (Conformité Européene) rating to ensure your equipment meets strict safety standards. Level 1 or 2 armor inserts for your back, elbow, and shoulder (some of which are also available at Amazon) slip into the pockets of your riding shirt or jacket, if it has them. Level 2 is a few millimeters thicker but offers better protection; it’s what I recommend. I’ve yet to put Forcefield Isolator 2 to an impact test, but they’re soft and pliable, never uncomfortable.
If you’re not wearing a jacket or shirt with an insert for back armor, like the Isolator 2 above, then check out this stand-alone back protector. I’ve worn one for years, and even on sickly hot days, it vents air well enough that I forget I’m wearing it, as long as I’m not sitting still in traffic. The adjustable straps and waistband make it easy to find a comfortable fit.
Pair it with Alpinestars’ Bionic Action Knee Protectors ($28) for more protection. These are both rated CE level 1, but they don’t require specialized clothes with pockets. Just strap ’em on. They’re geared toward off-road use, which is how I used them, but there’s no reason you can’t wear them on the street or for dual-sport use.
Reliable Boots and Gloves
Nailing the right measure between protection and flexibility is a balancing act. I’ve ridden in track gloves with titanium armor and padding so thick that I could barely feel the handlebars, which I didn’t like. The Avion 3 gloves feel good and offer solid crash protection. Goatskin leather guards against abrasion injuries, and hard-shell knuckle armor provides impact resistance. Because they’re perforated, I have no problems riding in them during humid East Coast summers.
If you prefer something lighter, try these fingerless gloves. They offer no armor and little protection, though the goatskin leather is abrasion resistant, and the gel palm pads reduce handlebar fatigue on long rides. I recently covered 4,500 miles in 18 days while wearing them, and they gave me no blisters or wrist soreness, though the dye routinely bled onto my hands.
Good boots provide ankle support, impact protection, and abrasion resistance. Hard-shell ankle armor protects the vulnerable ankle bone if you land on the pavement, and the double leather patches where the boot meets the motorcycle’s gear shift keep you from quickly wearing a hole in the tops of your boots. They’re surprisingly comfortable, too. I spent a month in Southeast Asia recently with them as my only shoes. I’ve used them off-road, and I’ve had a bike land on my legs while I was wearing them. Multiple times. No injuries to report.
Protective Helmets and Headsets
Always buy a Snell Foundation-rated helmet. The testing is comprehensive, and without a Snell rating, you don’t have any real idea of how a helmet will protect you in a wreck. The RF-1400 is Snell M2020-rated (Snell updates its standard every five years). Not only is it safe, but it’s aerodynamic, meaning you won’t be battered by wind noise and neck strain at highway speeds. Any street helmet is not going to vent well in standstill traffic, but I was happy with the venting at even moderate speeds too. At just over 3.5 pounds, it’s also lightweight. All that adds up to less rider fatigue on long rides.
When you plan to tackle routes both on- and off-road, pick up a dual-sport helmet. Helmets like the RF-1400 above feel hot at low speeds because they’re not designed to vent particularly well when you’re plodding along slowly off-road. The XD-4’s much more robust venting system flowed plenty of air when I was going off-road in first gear for hours, but it compromises some aerodynamic sleekness at the expense of greater wind noise and a wee bit more neck fatigue at high speeds. Still, you get a full-face visor and retractable chin skirt, which a purely off-road helmet won’t offer. Like any good helmet, it’s Snell M2020-rated.
I add Bluetooth headsets to my helmets so I can receive navigational directions without having to peek at my phone, not because I want to make phone calls and listen to music. The side-mounted media controls are easy to use while wearing gloves, and depending on use, I can get several days out of the battery. It connects to your phone through the Cardo app, which is intuitive and has never caused me any connectivity problems. The 40-millimeter JBL speakers can get plenty loud at highway speeds, but not so loud as to be able to drown out traffic. I’ve ridden through enough downpours to be confident in the unit’s waterproofing too. You can use the Freecom 2X solo, as I like to do for hands-free navigation, or pair it with another Cardo for person-to-person, walkie-talkie communications up to half a mile away.
This newly released Neo is a worthy upgrade pick if you’d like Siri or Google hands-free voice capabilities (or say “Hey Cardo”). You can also connect up to 15 riders into one group spread out over a mile. It had no problems hearing me ask Siri dumb questions, even at highway speeds. I used it for 12 hours at a time, and I could go three days on a charge. Like the Freecom 2X, each kit comes with a couple of speakers, a microphone, a wiring harness, and a control unit. A motorcycle shop will be happy to install it (for a price), but it’s not hard to do at home if you arm yourself with YouTube and a little patience.
Helmets take up a lot of space. Hanging it on the handlebar is fine when you pop into the café, but long-term storage like that will compress the helmet’s interior foam. Same thing if you just hang it on an ordinary hook. That’s why I installed this sturdy, American-made, aluminum wall mount in my apartment. It safely stores a helmet, and it includes room for stashing your gloves, plus a hook for hanging your riding jacket beneath. It looks super slick.
Mounting a waterproof bag on the tail of your bike is the easiest way to add storage. You just need a rear cargo rack to mount it. Once I set up my rack, I could pop it on and off the bike in about 10 seconds. Twenty liters of storage is enough for a weekend trip and more than enough for daily errands. After riding through three consecutive thunderstorms in one day recently, I can confirm that it keeps everything inside as dry as a bone. Heads up: the four straps that attach to the cargo rack can loosen by the end of each day, so retighten them the next morning. Then again, I was thrashing that bike off-road, so it may be less of a problem on a road bike.
I live in New York City and I park bikes outside. I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t have faith in a security device’s ability to make thieves go home empty-handed (or at least target a different bike). The X2 consists of two 14-millimeter-thick pieces that need to be cut through to steal the bike. Most thieves are opportunistic and will look for an easier, less time-consuming target. I use X2s on every bike that comes my way.
What About Handlebar Mounts for Your Phone?
You may be wondering why there isn’t a handlebar holder for a smartphone in this guide. I recommend against them. Vibrations from the bike, transmitted into the phone, eventually cause expensive smartphones to begin failing. The camera is usually the first thing to go. I tested one recently and the image stabilization and autofocus on my iPhone 13 Pro began to fail after only a week. That’s permanent damage. There are tank bags—like backpacks for storage that your bike wears on the top of the fuel tank—that have transparent, plastic windows. Slip a smartphone inside and you can use the touchscreen through the plastic. But in hot, sunny environments, phones will quickly overheat and shut down to prevent permanent damage.
I find it better to use an in-helmet Bluetooth system, like the Cardos I recommend above, for navigation. There’s no risk of phone damage, and you can keep your eyes on the road without glancing down at a screen.